Doing empire in style- a review of China: A History by John Keay

Before I read this book, I knew literally nothing of China’s history. And by nothing, I mean ‘Er, there were some emporers, a dude called Mao who killed a whole bunch of peasants, and a couple of hundred pandas’.

So yeah, pretty much nothing.

I decided it was high time I attempted to fill this hilarious gap in my knowledge, since the people of this fascinating land constitute, oh, only about 1/5 of the entire world population.

Despite the fact that this book was staggeringly long, (though really, for a history of such a huge country it was ridiculously short) it had me absolutely gripped from start to finish. It was incredible. Part of this down to the fact that Keay’s analysis fantastically brought the history to life. Most of it was due to the history itself being utterly edge of your seat gripping. The murders at court, the political intrigues, the flowering culture, the epic battles on insane scales – China’s history is  nothing if not exciting.

At the start of the book, John Keay goes straight in there with the mythbusting. Why is it that historians always insist on shattering my childhood illusions?

List of Lies:

1) You can see the Great Wall from space? Don’t make me laugh. We have Ripley’s Curi-oddities to thank for that ridiculous urban myth (and I used to believe those books and everything!).

2) On the subject of the Great Wall, it’s not unbroken either. Neither is it, or has it ever been, a boundary of China. All those big stone bits? They’ve been rebuilt just for you to look at. Most of it’s kinda falling down…

3) The Long Canal… is not one canal. It’s lots of canals. Sorry if you were going to try and kayak the whole thing.

4) You may have heard of Mao’s Long March as a triumph of Mao’s awesomeness – in true Moses like style he led his Communist followers to salvation halfway across China, all the while under heavy fire from the Nationalists. What a hero!

Actually, they should rename it Mao’s ‘I Was Carried On a Litter the Entire Way and Was So Bad at Navigating That We All Got Lost Multiple Times so it took us a Whole Year and No there Weren’t any Nationalists Firing At Us, Sorry I Lied, but Who Cares, because All of China is MINE!’

5) This isn’t a myth bust… but guess how much it costs to lease out a panda for a year. Just one panda… for one year.


Sorry if you wanted to start a zoo.

History to the Chinese

I was not entirely surprised to discover that Chinese history books have themselves had four entire rewrites in the past century alone. I was, however, astonished to discover how highly the Chinese value their history.

Whenever new dynasties or ideas came to hold power, they would do so not by claiming to be heralding a new age, but by using the past as a legitimiser. Instead of wanting to look forward, and be original, in China it was crucial to look back to the past, and attempt to emulate the incredible deeds and noble regimes to be found there. As far as the Chinese were concerned, things were only going downhill from here, and the better you wanted to be, the more you had to act like they did in olden times.

History is appreciated in China as an incredibly powerful tool, and at any particular time needs to be presented in different ways to make the ruling powers look as good as possible. This means that many historical events and characters often flip between good and bad in their official representation.

In legend for example, there is a story of a girl called Meng Jiangnu who stood up to the first emporer, and brought down the Great Wall with her tears. She is normally considered a popular hero. However, under Mao’s rule, Meng was likened to counter-revolutionaries who wished to topple the communist regime, and she was cast in culture as repulsive, the story attacked and deemed invalid. Confucianism also became under attack from the Communist Party in 1974 because Confucius’ reactionary teachings were being associated with the politician Lin Biao who they were toppling from favour.

History in China has always been of utterly vital importance, and they’ve been recording their own history for millenia. Old Chinese histories have been poured over through the centuries with the same reverance as for religious texts. There have been huge beuracracies in place under Chinese emporers with officials court historians writing down every little detail pretty much ever since the Chinese have had emporers. And that’s been 2000 years.

This seems to me incredibly bizarre, coming from a country infamous during the Dark Ages for where apart from a couple of monks, no-one wrote down a single blasted thing. ‘History?’ thought the battling Picts, the Saxon peasants and the angry Viking invaders, ‘Pah! History is for wimps… and historians’, and with that they all got back to stabbing eachother. Meanwhile, in China, everyone was practising calligraphy and painting pictures of bamboo shoots.

So, you’d think that this wealth of Chinese history would be great, because we can find out all about China, since they’ve helpfully been writing it down for ever. Right?

There’s just one problem.

In the past 100 years or so, more and more archaelogical evidence has been coming to light – evidence which often utterly conflicts with what used to be the standard, accepted view of Chinese history. This is the idea that China has been a single civilisation under fairly autonomous and continuous rule for over 3000 years, and that as a civilisation it and its culture expanded outwards over the years from the central northern plain. Evidence from the ground suggests that this is not the case – rather, different cultures and communities developed and evolved in different regions, some very far from the traditional Chinese heartland. The bronze age dynasties written about by history such as the Xia, if they did actually exist, would only have ruled over a small area – and it might not even have been the ‘right’ area.

For many years the Chinese government weren’t happy about this at all, because the traditional view is that Empire= Good, Random Little Countries= Bad. They even went so far as to hiding or ignoring discoveries which discredited traditional ideas (which I find pretty shocking). More recently, however, these newer ideas (which unsurprisingly were often touted by foreigners) have become more widely accepted.

Some people have even started to question whether empire should even be considered a good thing, which had never even occured to me. Arguably, culture flourishes better under regional rule, and without a neurotic central power attempting to control everything , people may have led better lives. Personally, I can’t imagine that humans in general will ever stop seeing ancient empires as the more impressive historical alternative; I think it’s part of human nature to see huge regimes bringing shared ideals and autonomy as something glorious to be aspired to.

Unless of course the empire is Persian and you’re watching 300.

However, the finds don’t always disagree with the writings. Take the terracotta army for example – this almost unbelievable find had been written about by China’s grand historian Sima Qian of the 1st Century BC. This has led some historians to be more believing of some of the claims Sima made which have previously seemed more than a little outlandish: for example that the First Emporer’s tomb contains flowing rivers of mercury, and that once coming across a hill in his path, he had it stripped bare and painted red – a sign of criminality. What I believe is that if the man was capable of burying an army of clay men, then why not of painting a whole hill too?

This still leaves the impossible question: How to reconcile the written histories of China with the newer archaeological evidence? It doesn’t seem like anything you’d ever be able to do to me until we have exhausted all possible sources of evidence – maybe China will just have to have two separate histories written about it from now on. John Keay goes a little way towards addressing this problem, suggesting for example that discovered communities of Longshan may be tenously equated to the mystical Xia dynasty.

As it is however, it is impossible to distinguish how long ‘China’ has infact been ‘China’. Some historians would claim that 3/4 of Chinese recorded history has been continuous and coherent – well really, it’s all to easy to slash that number to 1/4 and less. There have been large periods of general battling in Chinese history – most famously the ancient Warring States and Spring and Autumn periods in about 500-200BC, which ended with the first establishment of the first Empire, the Three Kingdoms period after the collapse of the Eastern Han dynasty in 220AD, and the 5 Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms period after the collaps of the Tang dynasty in about 900AD. Can you count these bits as part of the continuous timeline? Do you count in the large periods where dynastic control, though still officially ‘there’, was waning and barely tangible? Where do you start and end your timeline? And which ethnic groups do you even count as Chinese, for heaven’s sake?

I had no idea it would all be so confusing.

Despite this, it is true that (unlike what I’m used to reading about in European history where empires are constantly crumbling) in a sense, the Chinese empire never actually truly falls…until, of course, it does, in 1912.

Oh yes, dynasties fall, over and over again, and parts of the empire are always being overrun by rebels and Mongols and declaring themselves separate empires… but this idea of ‘China’ in some ways never actually ceases to exist. When one dynasty crumbled, the Heavenly Mandate – ie, the bumper sticker declaring ‘I Am the Official Dynasty’ – was simply transefered to the next ruling family. Or at least the one that appeared to be ruling more of China than everyone else… even when that family was headed by Mongols (and it happened more than once). Thus the empire continued. It may have continued in an extremely jumbled, heavily contested fashion… but I guess you could then argue that at least it did continue.

And who decided, often after they’d all ended which dynasties had in fact been the legitimate ones?

Ah well, that’d be the historians of course. 😉

Tangent Alert: Bonus Red Cliff Review

In 208 AD, during the fall of the Han dynasty, the three warring kingdoms of Shu, Wu and Wei battled it out for control of the Chinese empire. Shu and Wu (and their respective leaders Liu Bei and Sun Quan) formed an alliance against Cao Cao’s Wei in the North (stereotypically portrayed as a baddie in the movie). The battle of Red Cliff which followed went down as one of the pivotal moments in Chinese history.

I figured I’d now actually have enough contextual knowledge to understand and appreciate these awesome events in movie form,  and decided to reward myself by watching John Woo’s *historical* epic Red Cliff.

Of course, it was also a thinly veiled excuse to watch a load of attractive Asian men beat the crap out of eachother.

Although it didn’t stop me from loving the film, at first I thought my Western brain was going to drown under the multitudes of Chinese characters. Frequent referal to the plot synopsis on Wikipedia kept me on top of the storyline, but even then I gave up trying to classify secondary characters as anything more than ‘good’, ‘evil’ or ‘irritating love interest’.

Guess which category she falls into.

In fact, it proved far more fun to interpret everything as a tragic love triangle between Sun Quan and the viceroy Zhou Yu who were clearly vying for the attentions of Liu Bei’s lead strategist Zhuge Liang. This wasn’t difficult, as they kept exchanging heavy, intense gazes to the strains of suspiciously romantic sounding music. Not to mention the ten minute scene where they do nothing other than play zithers and stare longingly at eachother in the candlelight. 😉

Unrequited sexual tension…

As far as seriously epic fight scenes go, this film is a must – it was pretty awe-inspiring. As well as a gutsy heroine for me to cheer on, there was even an ancient chinese equivalent of Gimli, ie. short, hairy, growls a lot and kicks arse.

It still only counts as one!

All the men in the film seemed to possess god like powers of awesomeness. There’s this one scene where a dude goes full on Bruce Lee and takes out a whole contingent of soldiers with this one pole, all the while with a new born baby strapped to his back. On top of this, they all have these brilliant top knots which stay absolutely perfectly coiffed no matter how many bloody battle scenes they power through.

Oh, and though she doesn’t appear in this film, guess who else is supposed to have been riding around China kicking butt at this point in history?

Awwww yeah! Only in ancient china, my friends.


I will if she’s a woman – a Review of Vote for Caeser by Peter Jones

Are you unhappy with life in the 21st century UK?

Have you ever thought that instead of having a scheduled re-election, we should just execute David Cameron? Ever daydreamed about Michael Gove rehauling the education system and modelling it after the Spartans? Think that imprisoned criminals who place a strain on the resources of society should simply be rounded up and publicly fed to lions?

Well it’s your lucky day, because this is the perfect book for you!

The front cover shows a gladiator trampling the bodies of a load of dead chavs. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but hey, this cover is pretty much a bang on representation of the book’s contents. In fact, after reading the book, I can’t help wonder if the particular scenario detailed on the front isn’t a treasured fantasy of the authour Peter Jones himself.

Vote for Caeser is essentially an utterly unabashed and highly transparent excuse for Mr Jones to rant on about everything he thinks is wrong with modern day Britain. While it’s very entertaining, I did think the book could have done with a little more focus on the history, and comparisons with modern day, and a little less angry…angrying.

Then again, who am I to diss someone for letting off steam in their writing? 😉 It’s not like the book is serious anyway. (Sorry, Peter. I know your opinions are very serious.)

In essence, Mr Jones would like to persuade you all that if we only followed the examples of the ancient greeks and romans, we could easily fix many of the problems which bug our society today – family breakdown, rising criminality, tax evasion, etc etc.

The ancient Athenians didn’t pay taxes – instead they expected the rich to pay for their festivals and warships. Imagine if we could get the rich in our society to fund the public sector (thus making it the private sector…er…) instead of us all paying, and them evading? The Greeeks and Romans also were entirely religiously tolerant – who made their gods any better than anyone elses? And, in the words of Cicero, if you start waging Holy War in defence of your religion – thus suggesting that your gods need protection from you – doesn’t that mean you’re basically admitting that your gods are a little bit crap? (Terrorists, take note.)

However, while many of the points Jones made were extremely good ones, I did get the impression that he was looking at classical civilisation through ever so slightly rose tinted goggles. Because frankly, much as I love it, I really don’t think the ancient world had all the answers.

Take foreign diplomacy, for example.

For one of his main points, Jones argues that for all we like to think that our country is a democracy, its really little better than an oligarchy. My first thought was a slightly defensive ‘Hey!’ My second thought was ‘Oh…right.’

You can absolutely understand where he’s coming from. The very meaning of democracy – power kratos to the people demos – would only effectively be put into action if every single government decision was decided on by referendum. Which it obviously isn’t. Our electoral system means that the parties the plebiscate vote for are not actually the ones that end up in power (alternative vote, anyone?). Furthermore, the vast majority of politicians in Commons (and lets not even mention the House of Lords) do not exactly represent all swathes of society do they (sorry, Dave). Not forgetting of course all the deep seated corruption between the politicians, the media, and probably a whole load of bankers. How many people in the UK feel represented by the people that really hold the power in this country? Not many, Jones is willing to bet, and I must say I agree.

So far, so good. Now, if we want true democracy, says Jones, we should be looking at ancient Athens. There, every single decision was decided on by a vote by all the citizens. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen to the 21st century UK but I can agree that a democracy in this style would in many ways be much fairer and more, well, democratic. That was how to run a state! Imagine how much purer and simpler British politics would be if when politicians no longer had a popular mandate, they were ostracised! If only we all lived 2500 years ago, where everyone had a say in government!

Everyone… as long as you weren’t a slave… or a freed slave… or a woman…. or a child… or a resident alien… and you owned property… and you had had military training.

Which means less than 20% of the population.

To be fair to Jones, he argues that we cannot judge Athenian democracy by modern standards – to them all of the non-citizens frankly did not count as equal human beings anyway, so the idea that they would be allowed a say in government was a moot point. Everyone considered a real ‘person’ was allowed a say, the collective ‘people’ had utter and total control over their city, and thus it was a pure democracy. The people did not simply obey the law, they were the law.

However I disagree with Jones – if the rule of law is entirely subject to the will of the people, is that really a good thing? I believe that the law should transcend society, but in a pure democracy, the rules of society could be turned on its head at any time. Elements of law that I at least would equate with basic morality – don’t murder, don’t steal, etc – would be at the whim of an angry mob. Perhaps such a democracy would in fact run itself into destruction.

Secondly, for his argument about the citizens. You could say that before the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the UK was just as much a true democracy as ancient Athens. Similarly, everyone considered a real ‘person’ by society was allowed a say in government, because poor people and women didn’t count. But no-one goes round trumpeting how wonderful 19th century UK democracy was (or no-one I’ve met at least) because the very fact that vast majority of the population was not allowed to vote … just like ancient Athens… makes it far less democratic.

If we judge our democracy by the standards of a *genuine* democracy (just as Jones does when he pronounces the UK an oligarchy), why should Athens, also a highly ‘civilised’ people with a distinct culture, be treated any differently? Neither, in my opinion, were ‘pure’ democracies at all.

Now I’m not trying to be a ‘Whiggish’ historian who thinks that today’s UK is the epitome of awesome, and that everything has been building up to this moment of glory *snorts of hilarity*. But neither do I think that the problems Jones addresses anywhere near outweigh the vast, vast leaps forwards our country has made.

I mean, in Rome, they crucified Christians and fed prisoners to wild animals for fun – how is that better than what we’ve got now? The abolisment of slavery, the emancipation of women, free education, and the NHS to name but a few, are things which I am unashamedly proud of in the UK today.

(Mittens Romneyshambles, please take note of that NHS one.)

Jones makes a fascinating point when he remarks that Rome and Athens did a lot of things far more efficiently than we do. However, I think that the things that we have right, right now, are the things that actually matter… things I reckon we should be grateful for next time we want to moan about the benefit system or the failure of public spending.

Maybe I’m just a patriot. Maybe I’m too young and am ignoring all our faults. But the way I see it, the things we actually do have right are fundamental, and a whole lot more important than Bread and Circuses.


How to kill yourself with honour – a Review of Samurai: the Japanese Warrior’s Manual by Stephen Turnbull

In this light hearted and highly entertaining all-purpose guide, the humble reader is educated by its ‘author’ Umawatari Bogyu in bushido, the Way of the Warrior.

From teaching you how to properly conduct a tea ceremony, what to do with the cut-off heads of your enemies, and whether or not you should kill annoying Christians, this book is essential for all budding samurai. Plus, the entire thing is full of amusing illustrations and diagrams.

To give a brief introduction: Samurai were essentially the male members of Japan’s noble fighting class. They would be trained in all manners of combat so as best to serve their lords (daimyo), and thus the emporer and his right hand man, the shogun (who would do most of the ruling for him). They were a formidable presence for well over a thousand years until *sob* their inevitable decline with the industrialisation of the country.

Obviously the passage of time has hugely romanticised the samurai, and it is immature of me to be harbouring secret desires to be one and blah blah blah…but no. They were supremely badass. End of. I mean, look at the armour for goodness sakes!

The infamously terrifying face masks were infact a development on a simple surface for tying your helmet on. Soon the idea came of developing the surface into an entire mask, with the aim of scaring the enemy away.

Honour was hugely important in samurai culture, and was a feature in pretty much everything they did – even when it no longer made complete sense from a western perspective.

For example, they scorned the full metal suits of armour used by European counterparts, because it was far more impressive to have arrows left embedded in your armour. Plus, as the author of the book notes, how on earth are you supposed to commit suicide if the only hole in your armour is the codpiece? Awkwarrrrd!

Another example: samurai of the early modern period were forced to move with the times and the development of fire arms, but most considered these to be incredibly vulgar and cowardly. The idea that a common peasant on the ground would be able to kill a noble on horseback simply by loading and firing a rifle was extremely undignified and entirely dishonourable. It rendered the swords and bows and years of training of the samurai obselete. 

Though some samurai began to accept these modern inventions, tragically, the rise of the firearm would eventually sound the death knell for their kind.

All samurai were expected to be extremely accomplished in unarmed combat, using their swords (the katana and wakizashi), as well as able to fire arrows and wield a spear (yari) while galloping on horseback. There were other options, though: here’s a weapon I’d never heard about before, the glaive (naginata). This was a spear with a curved blade which required a lot of skill to use, and was used for slashing down peasants/infantry from the back of your horse.

I’d just like to give a quick shout out here to the scourge of the samurai… the ninja.

These wily assassins have had, if anything, a greater impact on modern popular culture than their more noble enemies. But who cares – we all know what class of citizen could beat any number of ninjas in a fight.

Then of course they’d ALL get pwned by this guy:

At this point it becomes embarrassingly apparent how much of a nerd I am…

The samurai (as I’m sure you’re well aware from all of the ritual suicide) were pretty big on death. Here’s a cheerful piece of advice for the budding warrior:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. – Nabeshima Tsunetomo

And another one:

Having been born into the house of the warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and short sword and die. – Kato Kiyomasa

Oh, goody.

Speaking of death…let’s talk about suicide.

The samurai were big fans of ritual suicide (whoopee). Suicide would normally be commited when denied the honour of dying in battle, to prevent dishonour in the case of defeat. Sometimes suicide would be to prevent personal disgrace, or it could even be a form of protest. One samurai in the service of Oda Nobunga was so despairing of his master’s love of hedonism that he killed himself to make the point. It worked and Nobunga changed his ways. I’m sure that brought his warrior comfort as he lay dying!

Contrary to popular belief, loyal samurai were not supposed to top themselves after their lord had died. I mean, that would just be wasteful! (Unlike all the other suicides, of course.)

‘Seppuku’ refers explicitly to the common method of disembowlment, but don’t worry, there are loads of more interesting ways of killing yourself to choose from. Drowning yourself, beheading yourself with your own sword (now that takes skill), running into a hail of arrows…

…running into a hail of bullets…

…or, my personal favourite, jumping off the roof of your castle with your sword in your mouth.

Unfortunately, the technique of falling on your sword comes with significantly less honour, as this is the technique that was employed by the female defenders of a castle in 1577. Oh, I see how it is.


How to bring yourself a whole load of honour though, is to compose death poetry, while you are bleeding…to death. A majorly awesome example of this is the samurai Aketsi Mitsuyoshi, who disembowled himself and then composed death poetry on the door of the temple in his own blood. Boo ya!

Now we get to the most important question. Could I have learnt to be a samurai?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is no. Women weren’t allowed.


But that didn’t stop a whole load of women from trying, and some with a lot of success, The Empress Jingu and Tomoe Gozen being among the most famous. You go, sisters!

Now all I have to do is get my hands on a flux capacitor and a whole load of plutonium, go back in time, and join them. In the meantime I heartily recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in samurai.


Giant horses on wheels – a Review of The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

Everyone’s heard the legend of the war of Troy, the adulterous love of Helen and Paris, and the eventual destruction of the great city. Something people don’t always consider is that the epic events written about by Homer may actually have taken place. How exciting is that?

Troy as a city certainly existed, with substantial ruins on the coast of what is now Turkey, and in approximately 1200 BC was invaded…quite possibly by Greeks.

In this, ‘A New History’, Barry Strauss uses archaeological evidence to reconstruct a narrative of the infamous siege. But, as he points out, there never actually would have been a siege – the Greeks lacked the superiority in numbers. Many of their men at any one point would have been off raiding for food, or on farming expeditions, which gave the Trojans a definite advantage.

Would the cause of the war really have been the disappearance of Helen? Well, that might have been the trigger, but greed as an overall cause is far more plausible. I mean, Troy was a big, loaded city, just sitting there on the coast line, practically begging to be ransacked by pirates. And if there’s one thing the Bronze Age Greeks were good at… it was pirating.

A coalition between several city states would have been no mean feat but the prize would have been more than worth it in the form of riches galore. Helen may well have carted off lots of Menelaus’ gold as well, and since he was only King of Sparta by marriage to her, his legitimacy and his finances would have been on the line.

Furthermore, in ancient politics, if Menelaus’ wife had legged it off, he would have been bound by duty to trash her adulterer’s city and bring her back – or risk looking like a massive fool and becoming an easy target for anyone else considering taking him down a peg. So while the propoganda reason for the war was ‘Bring me back my wife!’ the Greeks were actually all thinking ‘Let’s get rich quick,’ while Menelaus secretly worried ‘Help! I’ve been emasculated!’

It’s possible that characters such as Achilles and Hector did exist… just without the superpowers and godly influences, of course. And though Achilles almost certainly bore no resemblence to his movie self whatsoever and would have sported an unattractive beard, it’s way more fun to imagine him as Brad Pitt.

About the heel: that detail was never actually mentioned by Homer, and was added by later poets, even though it’s become such a famous part of the mythos of this legendary character.

What character, you ask? Oh, what a shame you’ve forgotten – I’ll have to remind you with more pictures.

Moving swiftly on…

The ‘ten year’ war would only have lasted for about three to four years. A decade long campaign would have been totally inconceivable as even after a couple of years the Greeks would have been getting angry and desperate; unable to muster the numbers to press their advantage against the fighters of a city who could hide back inside their walls whenever they got bored, they would have been longing to go home.

So how did the Greeks finally get through the walls? A ‘Trojan horse’ might have truly been the answer.

Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t have looked like this:

But the fact of the matter stands that to a bunch of tired, starving Greeks, Troy would have been pretty impregnable… unless they could trick their way in. Maybe there was a traitor on the inside, maybe there was a breach in the walls. Maybe ‘horse’ refers to the symbol of Poseidon and is a metaphor for a new Greek fleet. Maybe the ‘horse’ was actually a siege engine (I like that idea).

Or maybe, just maybe… it actually was a horse.

Almost certainly it would not have contained Greek soldiers, but would have been used as a decoy. The Greek fleet would have up sail-ed and ‘parked’ round the back of a nearby island, conning the Trojans into thinking they’d gone. Once everyone in the city was drunkenly celebrating their apparent reprieve, it would have been easy for the Greeks to take advantage. Ah, poetic irony.

Maybe Barry Strauss’ ideas are closer to the real answers than people have previously dared to think. But even if they aren’t, they sure make a fascinating story. 🙂

Clocks can be cool, too – a Review of Longitude by Dava Sobel

Many, many years ago (the early 1700s to be exact) the countries of Europe were in crisis. There was no way for sailors at sea to calculate longitude. (You see, back then, they didn’t have GPS.)

But why did this matter?

Without longitude, every one who got on a boat to sail anywhere at all had no way of locating themselves once they were on the open ocean. This meant that thousands of pounds, not to mention thousands of lives, were being lost on a regular basis as ships got lost, sank on reefs, or ended up grounding hundreds of miles from where they were trying to go. That’s not even counting the ones that were eaten by sea monsters or sucked into giant whirlpools.

This problem got so huge that the English parliament at the time offered, in todays money, a $12 MILLION reward to anyone who could solve it!

Fortunately, a bloke named John Harrison turned up to save the day.

Harrison devoted his life to solving the problem, eventually beating the odds to come up with a viable solution. His work had some stiff competition in the form of star charts (for which the first astronomer royal was commisioned) … and some less stiff competition in the form of ‘Powder of Sympathy’. A wounded dog would be put aboard ship, and the dog’s bandage left ashore where every noon it would be dipped into the powder, causing the dog, wherever it may be on distant tides, to yelp in pain.

Make sense to you? No, me neither. It gives a good impression of quite how desperate the situation was, however. Eventually Harrison came up with the solution – accurate clocks without pendulums, which do not change their speed even in changing temperature.

They’re quite pretty clocks in all fairness. They’re on display at the Royal Observatory outside London, and they’re worth the visit so that you can say you’ve stood at 0 degrees longitude, if not because you’re a clock geek.

Version one, which was fairly dodgy (apart from the fact that it was an incredible invention and nothing like it had been seen before).

And here, version four, the finished marine chronometer.

The tragedy is that the sneaky board of sneaks who were giving out prize money continually wrangled the rules so that poor old John, who basically saved the lives of countless seafarers of the future, never actually got more than about half the cash. Boo!

Not going to lie, before I’d heard of this book, I’d had no idea how much of an issue longitude actually was. It seems silly to us nowadays, we take knowing our location for granted, but imagine getting on a boat and having to put all your faith tof getting home safely in, well, nothing. It’s like going into a bus depot with a blindfold and getting on the first one that swings by – you have no idea where you’ll end up.

I was all in all surprised by how fascinating this little tale turned out to be, despite the fact that it is essentially about a load of old clocks. Yes, so I know that these clocks are vitally important, and changed the face of seafaring (not to mention the invention of Greenwich mean time!) but they are still just… clocks.

But just think, if only Odysseus had had one of those clocks, he’d have been home to Ithica in no time! Columbus might actually have landed on the right country! Captain Nemo might not have got the Nautilus sucked into that giant whirlpool!

See what I mean? I rather think three cheers to Mr. Harrison are in order from all of us. 🙂

Big Nose and Shorty – a Review of Napoleon & Wellington: Clash of Arms by Robin Neillands

I have this fascination with the Napoleonic wars which I think, stems from my immature childhood imaginings…

Redcoated Georgian soldiers in funny hats exploding the French in glorious battle, while the officers canter around brandishing swords and yelling ‘At ’em, men! We’ll give those blasted Froggies what for, eh!’ Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Wellesley stands on a hill and surveys all with a spy glass, occasionally pausing to make a witty remark about how short Napoleon is.

I decided I’d better find out the actual facts, and read this military history of the Peninsular War, and Napoleon’s 100 Day bid for freedom/world conquest.

It was pretty stodgily written, which made it drag a little by the fiftieth battle, but I still enjoyed all the nitty gritty details of French formations what, how many of the cavalry died in so-and-so attack, and, most importantly… what the 95th Rifles were doing.

Evidently, they were lounging around and looking badass.

In fact I had way too much fun imagining guerillas taking potshots at Napoleon’s marshals, and the army being persecuted through Spain by mardy Sean Bean and his bunch of sharpshooters.

Ah, Sharpe, how I love you and your hilariously awful temper, even though you don’t actually exist. I know you weren’t actually at the battle of Talvera. I do, honestly. Stop looking at me like that. I’m a serious historian now!

Quick, a fangirl! Somebody shoot it!

So, the inevitable question – who was the better general, Napoleon or Wellington?

One conclusion I drew was that Napoleon was a really, really bad planner. Reading about the disasterous retreat from Moscow was so tragic that it actually brought tears to my eyes. As well as the almost 500,000 troops who freezed to death many thousands of camp followers including women and children were stranded to the midwinter and the cossacks after the crossing of the Berezina. Many of the men were walking bare foot through snow in sub zero temperatures and tried to survive by drinking the blood of the dying horses. So, now we know what a dumb idea it is to start a two front war and invade Russia in the winter, we use history to learn from our mistakes and never do it again.

Isn’t that right, Adolf?

Tactically, Wellington was pretty smart with getting the lie of the land incorporated into his battles, using ridges to shelter his men behind so they didn’t get slaughtered by artillery. Napoleon liked to boast that he never used the same tactics, but there are a few elements which did crop up reasonably often – one being the infamous infantary column. This would march slowly towards the enemy banging drums, yelling ‘Long live Boney’ (or words to that effect) with the intention of scaring the English away. The problem is it didn’t actually work… hence the success of several of Wellington’s battles against French marshals.

I’m not going to go down the wild and woolly route of trying to analyse these two men strategies, but I think it’s probably fair to say that since Wellington did, when it came down to battle, beat Napoleon, you’ve got a pretty fair argument there for saying that he was the boss.

What I don’t understand is why marshal Ney is something of a hero, the ‘bravest of the brave’, when to me he seems to have been a bit of an idiot – for one thing purposefully ignoring his master’s explicit orders on several occasions when he really ought to have done as he’d been told. Also he changed sides twice, which really has never inspired any confidence in me that he is deserving of his reputation. Personally these marshals seem a bit dodgy to me, they spent most of their careers losing battles for Napoleon. No wonder he wanted to do all the work himself.

Could Napoleon have won Waterloo? Almost definitely. Basically, the fate of Europe was down to a doddery old German bloke who’d been sat on the previous day by his charger. Three cheers for Blucher!

If the Prussians hadn’t turned up, Napoleon would have broken Wellington’s line. If it hadn’t rained and the ground in the morning had been dry enough for artillery then the battle would have been over before the Prussians arrived. If Napoleon hadn’t been feeling ill and had actually left his tent to direct the battle straight away then he probably would have sorted out the mess his marshals were creating before the Prussians arrived. If he hadn’t (in a moment of utter dimness) sent marshal Grouchy (who’s name I am utterly incapable of getting over) off into the forest to chase the Prussians then he would have broken Wellington’s line before … you guessed it… the Prussians arrived. If said Grouchy had actually chased the Prussians and stopped them from fighting at Waterloo, then … the Prussians wouldn’t have had arrived, and Napoleon would have won! You know why Grouchy didn’t?

Because he was grouchy! Wahey!

So was the allied victory down entirely to DESTINY? Nah, it was down to Napoleon being a midget. (That joke was in poor taste. I’ll shut up now.)

You’ve got to give it to the man though, I mean, he conquered vast swathes (oh I like that phrase, let’s say it again, VAST SWATHES!) of Europe not to mention dabbling in Egypt and the like. Most impressively in my opinion, after he’d already been officially removed from power and put in exile, he casually left the island with a couple of hundred men, and took back France simply by landing on the shore and being so awesome that all the royalists came flocking to his cause. The newly reinstated (and very podgy) King nearly weed himself with fear and took off in a carriage before anyone had even asked him to. Wasn’t that kind of him?

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Napoleon, a product of the revolution who believed in the power of the people, liberty, equality, fraternity and so forth, actually ended up just as much of a power crazed dictator as any of the regimes he fought against. Well, I guess that’s the way of the world: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely – the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Eh, Adolf?

Sorry, Adolf. Didn’t mean to offend you by suggesting you bore similarities to a man who didn’t stoop to mass genocide. (Just to make it clear, I’m not comparing the two – I just thought that cat looked funny…)

Until next time! 🙂

Their legacy is obviously ABBA – a Review of Napoleon & Wellington by Andrew Roberts

Where did Napoleon keep his armies? Up his sleevies of course!

Yes, that was terrible, and yes, I won’t make any more bad jokes. I promise.

This is the second proper book I’ve read about Napoleon and Wellington, and it focuses on the relationship between the two men. They never met in person until that fateful day outside Waterloo, but Wellington was of course well aware of Napoleon from the beginning of his rise, and the latter had over the years grown to realise Wellington as a significant adversery.

It was packed full of information on what they said about eachother, Robert’s analysis of this, what other people said about them, and how much of that is probably porkies. It enabled me to actually feel like I vaguely understood how both men thought. I enjoyed it but I had to slog through a little because it was very, very, long.

Time for the mythbusting: First and foremost…. Napoleon wasn’t even French. He was from Corsica. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Honestly… next they’ll be telling us that Hitler wasn’t German, or something. 😉

Secondly *sob*: Wellington’s remark that ‘Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,’ is not in fact a jolly hockey sticks appraisal of good old English gallantry and willingness to ‘play the game, what’. Wellington wasn’t talking about the cricket pitch – he was talking about the corner of the school grounds where all the boys used to beat each other up.

Oh. *national anthem grinds to squeaky halt*

I wonder if they still have this corner…. I wonder if Hiddles and Harry Lloyd and Eddie Redmayne ever beat eachother up in this corner… now I have these really deranged ideas of Eton just being full of upper class actors in top hats, brawling. Ahem, moving on.

Apparently both Napoleon and Wellington where extremely attractive to women. Really? Napopleon? Really?

Okay so I’m sure he had the whole ‘Charismatic and Exceedingly Powerful Emporer’ thing going on, but if he’d tried to have his way with me I would have been like ‘Don’t push it ya French midget!’

Napoleon had a mean sense of humour. He told one woman ‘Madam, they told me you were ugly, they certainly did not exaggerate.’ Ouch, she got told! Bit harsh coming from a midget (okay, I promise I’ll stop with the midget jokes). Sort of reminds me of Winston Churchill’s famous diss, ‘Madam, I am drunk and you are ugly, the difference is, in the morning I shall be sober.’

As well as his famous quote ‘The English are nothing but shopkeepers and their glory consists of their wealth’, here are some other amusing things Napoleon thought about the English:

The English seem to prefer the bottle to the society of their women.

England is said to traffic in everything. I should advise her to sell liberty, for which she could get a high price, and without any fear of exhausting her stock.

There is a greater number of honourable men, proportionately, in England than in any other country; and yet they have some very bad men there – they are in extremes.

Shakespeare had been forgotten in England for two centuries: Voltaire… praised him, and everybody began to repeat that Shakespeare was the greatest poet in the world.

And my personal favourite:

The English are in everything more practical than the French; they emigrate, marry, kill themselves, with less indecision than the French display going to the opera.

You know, personally, I thought the French actually showed quite a lot of decisiveness when they went and chopped the heads of all their aristocracy.

Roberts challenges popular stereotypes of the two men, contradicting the other book on the subject which I’ve read, which gave the impression that Wellington was modest and prudent. Wellington certainly had to be very careful about not getting his men killed, as he was answerable to the British government. Napoleon on the other hand was effectively dictator, and could do what the heck he wanted, so if he wanted to freeze half his army to death then tough – they got popsicle-ised. Roberts dismisses the myth that Wellington was an overly cautious commander – he often went on the attack, he was simply more careful going about it.

Prudent in this respect Wellington may have been, but Roberts shows that he definitely wasn’t modest – he surrounded himself in his house with memorabilia which lauded his victory – such as Canova’s mahoosive statue of Boney himself. Wellington also had a bit of a thing with ‘collecting’ Napoleon’s ladies… yes… that means sleeping with two of Napoleon’s mistresses, and hanging revealing portraits of his female relatives around his house. Doesn’t really sound like the work of a bloke with a small ego if you ask me!

Robert concludes that what these two men thought of each other is in contrary the popular opinion that Wellington respected Napoleon, who underestimated and despised the former. In fact, he argues, Wellington loathed Napoleon as a man and a military leader, whereas Napoleon had a high regard for Wellington… until Wellington beat him, of course. He then spent his final years on St Helena cursing his name.

‘You think because Wellington has beaten you that he is a good general, well, he is a bad one.’

Napoleon’s famous remark on the morning of Waterloo is often taken to show his overwhelming arrogance, but Roberts argues that it is taken out of context and constitutes an anomaly. Napoleon frequently praised Wellington, and did not underestimate and this comment was made at a moment where he could not be seen to be in the least doubtful of victory, and had to insult Wellington to keep up morale.

Yeah, so he lost anyway.

Napoleon made many mistakes at Waterloo, primarily, sending a large contingent of men to chase after the Prussians and so losing out on numbers, and letting his ill health that day prevent him taking firm control of the battle at points, and allowing his (as far as I can see, frankly useless) Marshals run the show. The truth however still stands that if Blucher had not made it to Waterloo with Prussian reinforcments in time, Wellington would have been stuffed.

And would we now all be living in the French Empire? Zat is zee question!

In the end I ended up rather liking both these colourful characters in a ‘They’re awesome but they’d be right arrogant jerks in real life’ sort of way. Wellington, national hero that he is, was a hilarious snob, and I bet he’d be great fun at dinner parties. Napoleon was a genius whose energy and inspiring leadership must have been amazing and terrifying to see. His mere presence could cause royalist soldiers to desert their cause and join him, and staggeringly, he lost only ten or so out of seventy battles. On the other hand, he was also a power crazed psychopath.

I think Napoleon’s downfall was that his vision was not tempered, be it by caution, meticulous organisational skills, or rubber ducks. Wellington, though driven and determined, was not giddy with the power he wielded (if only not get fired). Napoleon’s ability to make mistakes (you know, accidentally kill off a few thousand French here and there, let a whole bunch die in Russia, etc) without getting called in on it by anyone eventually lead him to make one mistake too many.

Over ambition was, I think, Napoleon’s fatal flaw, something which Wellington, as an also incredibly skilled commander, was able eventually to exploit. You see, Napoleon may have rarely lost a battle…. but Wellington didn’t lose any.

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